Monday, July 28, 2014

Ho Chi Minh City with VietJet Air - Day 1: Pho, Thien Hau Temple, Cyclo Ride, Water Puppet Show, Saigon River Cruise

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City on VietJet Air
Xin Chào! Hello Vietnam! VietJet Air started daily flights from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City from 23 May 2014, with fares as low as S$20 one way before taxes (with taxes, a return trip can still be below S$150).

Singapore is the second international destination (after Bangkok) for this young airline that just got off the ground Christmas 2011. It began as a low-cost carrier in Vietnam but is now the second richest airline there in two years, with 30% market share. Every day it operates over 100 flights to 25 destinations. It just launched services to Seoul, and is looking at Siem Reap and Taiwan soon.

Saigon street scene - easily dominated by motorbikes
This means there are now more affordable flight options to and within Vietnam, which is a huge (long and narrow) country to explore.

VietJet Air invited media to experience Ho Chi Minh City, the home base for most of its flights. This is my first time in the city that was formerly exotic Saigon.

VietJet plane with extra legroom in front for premium fare passengers
The VietJet Airbus A320 planes are well-maintained, and some of them have extra roomy stretching space in front for premium fare passengers.

Five spice chicken with sticky rice, and fresh young coconut
The inflight food is prepared from Vietnam. This is their signature Five Spice Chicken with Sticky Rice  (50,000VND or US$2.50) - kind of like a "lor mai kai" (steamed glutinous rice with chicken). The chicken has bones though, which I was surprised to see, but lean and sweet. The fresh coconut (40,000VND or US$2) is a real joy, especially if you are lucky to get a young one, and can crack it open wide enough to scrape out the succulent flesh.

The VietJet office is in this building, so is Canon!
VietJet's head office is in CT Plaza, Tan Binh district. It's not far from the airport - in fact, it's one of the first buildings you see even before you deplane. Tan Son Nhat International Airport is just about seven kilometres from the city centre too.

I also always see Canon buildings right near the airport whenever I go to Vietnam. Well, the nice folks at Canon Singapore loaned me a 5D MkIII for this trip, and I am super glad for that, because that camera is an absolute dream to use, and the photos don't need as much editing!

We had a formal welcome reception
We were given a rather grand formal welcome at the meeting room.

VietJet Managing Director Mr. Luu Duc Khanh
It was a great honour to meet VietJet Managing Director Mr. Luu Duc Khanh, and key members of his team. They spent some time answering our questions and giving us a tour of their office. There's a bright and cheery vibe about the company.

This is the VietJet CEO "office"
This cubicle here is the CEO's office - right in the thick of everyday action. No pretentious rooms or fancy furniture. Plus, a no-door policy is better than an open door policy!

Staff training centre at VietJet
The staff training centre is also where they hold briefings.

We have to say, the VietJet uniform is quite cute. It's totally different from their national costume, the ao dai, but it makes the staff look perky and youthful, don't you think?

Well the visit was cool but soon it was time to see Saigon.

There is so much to see in Saigon
It's another world just less than two hours away. I love the old and rundown parts of town.

More scooters than cars in Ho Chi Minh City
What used to be swampland is now the largest metropolis in Vietnam, its economic hub and home to 12 million people. It's nice that they have tree-lined boulevards because the traffic in this city of can be overwhelming.

Bánh su kem sầu riêng - Choux cream pastry on the street!
And I am looking at street food! Bánh su kem sầu riêng - gosh, choux cream pastry from a little road stall!

Three on a motorbike is a pretty common sight
Three on a motorbike is a common sight. But man, that kid needs a helmet. So does the schoolgirl riding pillion.

Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu (The Pagoda of the Lady Thien Hau)
We visited the Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu (The Pagoda of the Lady Thien Hau) in Cho Lon (Chinatown). Built around 1760, it is one of the oldest temples in HCMC. This temple is Chinese-style and is dedicated to the deity that protects sea-farers. She is also known as Mazu and is revered by southern Chinese maritime provinces.

Incense at
The temple is famous for its large incense coils, some of which can burn for a month. Visitors can buy these, attach their names to the coils and let the incense smoke carry their prayers to the deity. Always so hypnotic, these circular rings of incense.

Incense burners at Thien Hau Temple, Saigon
I reckon these are incense burners. Giganormous ones. Emblazoned with the words Thien Hau Hall, they also feature intricate carvings.

There are two altars flanking the entrance.

Remember to look up
Don't forget to look up. Porcelain dioramas adorn the rooftop and tell many stories.

Pho with mixed beef at Phở Đệ Nhất (Võ Tuấn)
And for our first meal in Saigon, a hearty bowl of pho with all the fresh herbs (in the south they like to add bean sprouts, saw leaf, cilantro, mustard leaf and lime). Oooh the chili slices look mild but they sting! The beef broth is clean-tasting and subtle, perhaps a little on the plain side, but you can jazz it up with all the condiments you like.

Phở Đệ Nhất (Võ Tuấn) is a pho chain
Phở Đệ Nhất (Võ Tuấn) is a chain specialising in pho. This one is just conveniently down the road from Thien Hau Temple.

Adrian on the cyclo, Vietnam's traditional way to get around
After lunch, a little ride back to our hotel on the cyclo! These pedal bikes are fast disappearing from the city, which is a pity because they are much more charming and environmentally friendly to boot!

Cyclo rides that zipped by neighbourhoods
I used to think these and trishaw rides are such tourist traps, but this turned out to be pretty fun. These old men could pedal and went at a brisk pace, zipping in and out of traffic. We still were able to see a lot of the neighbourhood and fascinating details of everyday life.

Just a little bit scary
Yeah like this guy. Hope nobody calls out to him and makes him turn around!

However, caution is necessary in other aspects - hold your belongings close to you because snatch thieves will help themselves as they ride by. The drivers even told us not to hold up our mobile phones taking pictures.

Also, hiring a cyclo off the streets on your own can be dicey. There are scammers who will try to fleece you. Try to get yours through your hotel or tour company. More tips on avoiding taxi and cyclo scams here.

Liberty Central Hotel in Saigon
We reached our destination, the Liberty Central Hotel, in less than half an hour. Interestingly, there is a huge wall painting of an elegant lady in a cyclo.

Bedroom in Liberty Central Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City
The bedroom is comfortably sized, like most business hotels.

Bathroom is modern and very clean
The bathroom is also contemporary and clean.

The view of Quach Thi Trang roundabout in front of Ben Thanh market
From my window I could see the Quach Thi Trang roundabout with the bronze statue of the famous General Tran Nguyen Han.

The water puppets bring a story to life including fireworks
After freshening up, we went to see a traditional water puppet show. These are really popular in Vietnam. The whole story is told in Vietnamese, but you don't really need subtitles - the puppets make the tale come alive with amazing dexterity. And there's even fireworks at the end!

Water puppet theatre is performed by actors waist deep in water
Sometimes you wonder how stick puppets can do so much. The puppet masters are all behind the screen, waist deep in water.

Saigon River Dinner Cruise
Dinner was aboard a Saigon River cruise ship. This Chinese junk sure has gotten an upgrade!

Another cruise boat in the shape of a green-eyed fish
There was another one behind us, in the kooky shape of a fish.

Saigon River dinner cruise in a dining cabin that has both Eastern and Western elements
The interior is like that of an old paddleboat steamer but with Chinese style furniture and decorations. Lots of old white men (maybe old GIs returning to visit) there. It is pretty warm without air-conditioning though.

Food aboard Saigon River dinner cruise
The food is a nine-course sit down menu. Highlights - the appetisers of Chả giò (minced pork sausage) and Chạo tôm (sugarcane prawns), Thịt heo nướng & Bánh hỏi (grilled pork and rice net noodles), and the amazing Bò nấu đậu (beef stew with peanuts), a legacy from the French.

The cruise takes you past the Ho Chi Minh City skyline
But the draw is really the view of the Ho Chi Minh City skyline and the night lights.

Saigon river night scene

Buildings at night by the Saigon river

Another Chinese junk style cruise boat
We also drift past another Chinese junk. This one has sails that changes colours.

Ho Chi Minh City Hall
The evening comes to a close and we head back to the hotel, passing by the Ho Chi Min City Hall which looks really grand at night. It is not open to public though.

The historic Rex Hotel, as captured on a moving bus
And nearby is the historic Rex Hotel, which has seen 80 years of Saigon's development. It was also the scene of daily American press briefings during the Vietnam war. This is the heart of the city with the opera house not far away. It would have been nice to explore the area. These are photos taken from the bus.

Next up:
Day 2: an excursion to Da Lat in the central highlands of Vietnam, City of Love and Flowers, Bao Dai's Summer Palace, Railway Station, Night Market
Day 3: more sights of Ho Chi Minh City - Jade Emperor Pagoda, Independence Palace, Notre Dame, Saigon Post Office, Vietnamese Coffee

Many thanks to VietJet for the familiarisation trip. Photos taken using the Canon 5D MkIII kindly loaned by Canon Singapore

I love this baby!

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